INDIANAPOLIS – First, they threw beer bottles. Then, they cried.
Tears of joy. Tears of disbelief. Tears of emotions that have gone untapped since Georgia's last national championship more than four decades ago.
For 41 years, Georgia fans wondered when it would come. And they wondered, perhaps most of all, who would be the person to finally guide them there.
Kirby Smart is that person. In one night, the questions surrounding his ability to take that next, next step vanished. The lost opportunities and that lingering, overpowering feeling of almost vanished over the course of four hours.
The understudy finally beat the teacher. The G.O.A.T. finally lost to his former defensive coordinator and friend—a moment neither Smart nor Nick Saban is soon to forget.
"It's not for me," Smart said after Georgia beat Alabama 33-18 to win the national championship. "I know it's for the Georgia people and all that, but it's really for these guys that have given so much, and I certainly appreciate what they've done."
This was very personal and very emotional. For Smart. For Saban. For the fans.
Those emotions poured out of the Lucas Oil Stadium seats and on to the field throughout Monday night. When things looked to be turning in Alabama's favor following a fumble, the aluminum bottles went flying.
But when Georgia finally conquered Alabama, somewhat fittingly on a Kelee Ringo interception that he ran back 79 yards for a touchdown, the tears began to flow.
Joy, an emotion Bulldogs fans have struggled to grasp, radiated through the stadium in a way it rarely does.
At the center of it all was the architect. Not quarterback Stetson Bennett, who shared his own tears on the sideline as the seconds ticked away and the outcome was realized. Not Jordan Davis nor Nakobe Dean, the defensive staples for the best defensive team in college football, who loomed large all season.
But Smart, who's never received the proper credit for Georgia's meteoric rise. Even now, having won the school's first national championship since 1980, the credit will undoubtedly be spread elsewhere first. And Smart will gladly help facilitate that praise.
"It's a blessing to be the head coach at University of Georgia, and the men on this team, a lot of them juniors and seniors, will be remembered for a long time," Smart added. "This is a special group."
Before Monday, the conversation surrounding Smart was rarely about what he's built along the way—a run of historic recruiting classes that grew into the most talented roster in the country. It was never about building a dominant program. It was never about constructing one of the greatest defenses the sport has seen in some while.
It was about his shortcomings. It was about his 0-4 record against Alabama heading into Monday. It was about the loss to his former boss in the SEC Championship Game. It was about everything Georgia wasn't in key moments.
And for much of this game, it appeared as though a similar script was being crafted.
Georgia's offense mustered up just six points in the first half. Penalties stalled drives. Mistakes, in a game where little detail mattered, were more pronounced.
You could feel it. All the same emotions. All the same concerns. They were unfolding in real time, right on cue.
And then, the doubt was no more.
Georgia found its offense, largely through Bennett. While many clamored for Smart to turn to backup QB JT Daniels after Alabama cruised past Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, the head coach never budged.
Even on Monday, before the touchdowns came, it felt like Daniels might appear. But he never did.
Smart stuck with his quarterback, the former walk-on, rather than the former 5-star recruit who was thought to be the missing piece. Had the decision backfired, it would have lingered throughout Athens all offseason.
It never did. Bennett threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead Georgia to a win.
"The one thing that stood out to me was Stetson," running back Zamir White said. "Just seeing him have all this pressure on him, all the crowd noise and him going through that and fighting it out and just seeing him just cry, just tears of joy, man. It was really priceless."
Along the way, Georgia pushed back. The offensive line carved out huge holes for the running backs. The defensive line, which could do little to slow Bryce Young in the first game, overwhelmed the Heisman winner this time around.
Georgia never broke. In fact, the roles reversed, and Alabama could do nothing to stop it.
When the game ended, Smart and Saban met at midfield. The two, having won championships together in Tuscaloosa, shared an embrace you rarely see from coaches with the kinds of stakes and passion attached.
The master hugged his prized pupil. Heck, Saban even cracked a smile at Smart's triumph—the ultimate sign of respect from the man who has made these moments look so normal.
"I love Kirby," Saban said following the loss. "He did a great job for us for a long time. If we had to lose a national championship, I'd rather lose one to one of the former assistants who certainly did a great job for us and has done a great job for his program and his team. If any team deserves, they deserve it."
Georgia did it. Smart did it.
It didn't happen overnight. It took time and talent. And, yes, it took disappointment along the way. The journey, while imperfect, made the moment that much sweeter.
With a roster largely compiled of some of the best football players in the country, there's no reason the Bulldogs won't be in a position to do it again next year and beyond. Smart has constructed something built to last. Having seen exactly what sustained greatness looks like at Alabama, Smart has established a foundation that is likely to carry into 2022 and beyond.
That conversation, however, will have to wait. This one cannot and should not go quietly. Not after 41 years of waiting. Not after so many close calls. There are still tears to be shed and celebrations to be had.
Georgia fans waited four decades for this moment. They questioned whether it would ever come.
They just needed the right coach at the right time.
At long last, they've found him.